SAN FRANCISCO—It was a month of mixed pleasures. Of the two world premieres I saw, Jessica Hagedorn's Stairway to Heaven, written for Campo Santo's ensemble, was fascinating and frustrating. The mysterious Nena (a richly multilayered performance by Catherine Castellano) is struggling to write a memoir/cookbook about her childhood island home. Taking dictation is her houseguest, a homeless war vet and would-be poet. Events interfere: a troubling visit from Nena's twin sister, a friendship with a strip-club owner, the veteran's relationship with a young junkie, Nena's own haunting memories. Under Nancy Benjamin's taut direction, the acting was electrifying, and Hagedorn's characters are intriguing, but they're underdeveloped, as is the action.
Local scribe Philip Kan Gotanda's two new one-acts, under the umbrella title Under the Rainbow, got an unbalanced world premiere at Asian American Theater Company, directed by the author. In Natalie Wood Is Dead, a Japanese-American mother and daughter, both actors, argue about racial issues and exchange long-held secrets. But the direction was so slow and flat, the acting so stiff and forced, that it was hard to fairly judge the script. Much more successful—funny and provocative—was White Manifesto, an ironic, almost-solo pseudo-lecture/demonstration by a white womanizer (the dynamic Danny Wolohan) about his penchant for Asian women and his cynical racial attitudes in general.
At San José Repertory Theatre, Enchanted April—Matthew Barber's conventional romantic comedy based on Elizabeth von Armin's 1921 novel about four Englishwomen who rent a house in Italy for a month and are forever transformed by the experience—was a pleasure of the slightly guilty variety. Director John McCluggage's casting was so perfect—including Domenique Lozano as an impulsive housewife, Julie Eccles as her repressed friend, Carol Mayo Jenkins as a forbidding grande dame, Emily Swallow as a sardonic beauty—that I relished every predictable moment. Plus you could almost smell the wisteria on Scott Weldin's lush Italian villa set.
Like Enchanted April, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is better-known as a film. The sturm und drang–filled story of lesbian love, cruelty, and heartbreak would seem an inspired choice for the adventurous Last Planet Theatre. Director John Wilkins achieved a brittle, Teutonic artificiality—if that's what he intended. But he also gussied things up with too much distracting and repetitive stage business; the production designs seemed haphazard; and the acting was generally weak. Heidi Wolff's turn as a silent, tormented housekeeper was the most convincing.
A similar fate befell Lynn Nottage's carefully crafted, emotionally involving Crumbs From the Table of Joy, which explores race relations and family dynamics in 1950s Brooklyn through the eyes of the gradually maturing teenage narrator. Nottage's characters are just as engaging as the important issues she dramatizes. However, Stanley Williams' Lorraine Hansberry Theatre production was excruciatingly slow on opening night; only Cathleen Riddley's vivacious auntie created a sense of actual life onstage.
Neal Bell's adaptation of Mary Shelley's 19th century novel Frankenstein, here called Monster, is yet another mixed pleasure. The tale of the grotesque-looking human—created in a lab by an eccentric doctor and then cast out—is alluring, with its suggestions of life beyond death and the fragility and malevolence of the human heart. But Monster is overwritten, with stilted and occasionally ill-conceived comic dialogue, and, in Bill English's SF Playhouse production, the acting leans toward the histrionic. But, as the monster, Paul Santiago is mesmerizing. And Steve Coleman's moody set and John Behrens' video projections beautifully conjure dramatically shifting scenes.
In a measure of Shotgun Players' dedication to theatre that resonates politically in our times, artistic director Patrick Dooley chose to stage a new translation (by Tom Hoover) of Albert Camus' 1949 The Just, a fact-based drama about a cadre of terrorists during the Russian revolution. And it's a measure of the remarkable talents of Dooley and cast that this play—basically a dry and wearisomely intellectual argument about do-the-ends-justify-the-means, and can-love-exist-amid-injustice—is as vibrant as it is. Beth Donohue is especially heart-wrenching, but the performances are so authentically imbued with passion that the text, for the most part, crackles.
The West Coast premiere of Obie Award–winner Lisa Kron's Well was a comic delight, an autobiographical "solo show with other people in it." Leigh Silverman's Public Theatre production was restaged for A.C.T. with mostly the same cast (Kron as her charming if overly smiley self; a pitch-perfect Jayne Houdyshell as her unflappable mother; a strong four-member ensemble). Kron slyly mocks herself, as well as the very constructs of theatre, while examining illness and social activism in her own family.
Another winner: Lisa Loomer's The Waiting Room at City Lights Theater Company of San José. Loomer successfully juggles multiple balls in this imaginative comedy, which delves into the beauty and pharmaceutical industries, cancer, the politics of the FDA, and more. Simultaneously she traces interactions among three troubled women (Heidi Kobara, Lauri Smith, and Nichole Y. Hamilton) from three different countries and periods of history. Tightly directed by Kit Wilder, it was funny and thought-provoking, with a cast well up to its considerable challenges.
The Magic Theatre's American premiere of San Francisco–based playwright Wesley Moore's dramatic two-hander, A Reckoning, proved disappointing. A neurotic adult daughter (Jennifer Tighe) uncovers, in psychotherapy, hidden memories: Dad (her real-life father, Kevin Tighe), a prominent architect, yelled a lot. Maybe he locked her in a closet once. After Mom's death, she confronts him, he denies it; she sues him for abuse. Potentially incendiary material, but Moore's script lacks insight and is curiously undramatic; each scene unfolds with little impact, the story itself remaining unresolved and uninvolving. And under Richard Seyd's direction, the acting is monochromatic; Jennifer, who displays strong inner life but virtually no outer life, so to speak, seems muted, and Kevin, his acting style more presentational than hers, hasn't found much depth in his character.
SACRAMENTO—After five years of battling cervical cancer, Kim Simons Condon, a versatile designer of costumes and promotional graphics, finally succumbed, dying at home Feb. 19. She was 50. She and her husband, River Stage Artistic Director Frank Condon, had been celebrating South Sacramento theatre's 10th anniversary season.
"She was such a friendly, fresh, and straight-ahead person," said Laurie O'Brien, a Los Angeles–based actor, who first met Condon when the two worked on a 1980 production of The Taming of the Shrew in Lake Tahoe. "She was someone you just liked immediately. She was always so much fun in the dressing room. You looked forward to the fittings—and that's not always true." "Her smile lit up a room," echoed Loren Taylor, a Sacramento actor and River Stage associate artist. "Her energy made us all feel more alive. Her graciousness and humor made the world seem a better place."
Condon, who had worked alongside her husband as River Stage's resident costume designer, also freelanced locally. Her first costume-design assignment was for the original production of The Chicago Conspiracy Trial, which Frank co-created and directed at the Odyssey Theatre in 1979. She designed several subsequent Odyssey productions in the '80s, including Baal and Bosoms and Neglect. She also created logos for such shows as Tracers and designed season brochures and posters. During her tenure as a costume designer for Coyote Productions, she worked with Ed Harris, Darryl Larson, and other actors on such early Sam Shepard plays as Cowboy Mouth at the Pilot Theatre. She also designed costumes for the Improvisational Theatre Project at the Mark Taper Forum, as well as for several productions of new plays at South Coast Repertory, directed by Martin Benson, David Emmes, and Lee Shallat. Condon also designed for such regional theatres as the Denver Center Theatre Company (for Medoff's original production of The Majestic Kid), San Diego's Old Globe, and El Teatro Campesino. She often designed for playwright Luis Valdez, whom she first worked with on the inaugural 1981 production of El Teatro's home theatre in San Juan Bautista, The Rose of the Rancho.Condon received a Bay Area Critics Circle Award for her costume design for Los Corridos.
"Kim had a vibrant creative energy mixed with her sense of humor, so there was an inspired sense of fun in all her designs," said her husband. "She was tireless in the pursuit of excellence, had a keen sense of detail, and always created something extraordinary and striking. Her eye for color, form, and design was remarkable. And, while having a truly wonderful flair for the theatrical, she at the same time insisted on real fabrics and clothed characters singularly for every actor she worked with."
Donations can be made to the Kim Simons Condon Memorial Costume Program scholarship fund at River Stage, 8401 Center Parkway, Sacramento, CA 95823.